Written and Unwritten Rules

This is part 4 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

I have defined games as systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes. Previously I discussed the artificiality, thinking about drawing students into the magic circle, and the different types of conflict we can build our activities around. Next  we have rules and outcomes will be covered in a future post.

Terra Mystica

Teachers know that it’s very important to give clear instructions for their assignments, though we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the best to make sure our students understand the assignments. Board game designers have thought a lot about this. As Rob Daviau, one of the most innovative designers out there, has noted: board games are probably the only form of entertainment that requires you to take a reading comprehension test followed by an oral defense in order to get to the fun. So board game designers are very interested in making sure people don’t tune out before they finish reading the rules. Here’s what they say is important about rules: Continue reading

Cooperative and Semi-Cooperative Games

This is part 3 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

Salen and Zimmerman define the term ‘game’ as follows:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a measureable outcome.

There is a lot that can be unpacked here but for now let’s focus on the idea of artificial conflict. First, conflict in games is artificial. This doesn’t mean that the conflict in games isn’t real – indeed, they are half-real. Winning a game is a real experience but the conflict between players takes place in a fictional world whose boundaries are clearly separated from reality (using ‘magic circle’ techniques).

Pandemic: save the world or lose (together) trying.

Conflict in games does not mean violence. In games, and specifically in board games, conflict actually requires a great deal of cooperation: players have to agree on the rules, or accept a way to adjudicate them in cases of disagreement or ambiguity.

When we’re thinking of conflict in games, we often think of the individuals competing against each other, as in Chess or Risk. That model can sometimes be useful if you’re trying to simulate a situation where every person is out for themselves, but often I find the model of group vs. system to be more relevant for a classroom environment. The recent renaissance of board games is driven to a great extent by cooperative games, where people play collectively against the game, winning or losing together. For example, in Pandemic, players take roles such as medic, scientist and dispatcher in a heroic attempt to save the world from four contagious diseases. Continue reading

The Golden Rule and the Magic Circle

This is part 2 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

To skirt theoretical controversies and avoid convoluted technicalities, I define game mechanics broadly to cover any game elements that designers use to shape gameplay. Mechanics are ‘tricks of the trade’ – concepts, ideas, principles – ways to organize a game’s rules and players’ interactions to achieve a compelling, engaging and fun experience.

Lancaster: bigger knights can take smaller knights.

The first and most important concept in designing games and learning activities – the golden rule of game design – is that you want to match the theme with the mechanics. Whatever you have students do as part of their assignment must make sense in terms of the world the assignment is supposed to emulate. The general idea is that actions students make in the classroom have to make sense in the fictional world your exercise creates. For example, in the board game Lancaster players take turns placing cubes on the board to gain resources. This is typical of a certain genre of games, called worker placement, a famous example of which is a game about farming called Agricola. There is a difference between the two games. In Agricola, when a player places a cube on the spot that produces wheat, no one else can get wheat that turn. This rule makes sense for farming – if someone bought all the wheat in the market, you don’t get any wheat for a while. But in Lancaster, the cubes are knights, and they come in different sizes (marked by numbers) – a knight of size 3 can push over any knight of smaller size, taking their spot at the castle. This simple rule change makes sense because we know knights will push each other while farmers won’t. The rules (‘you can/can’t push people out of spots on the board’) match the story superimposed by the game. Continue reading

From Tabletop Games to the Classroom

Today we have the first in a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

One of the projects I’m working on at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focuses on effective pedagogies for teaching ethics. Simulations, of the kind that readers of this blog are familiar with, are one way of engaging students by grounding abstract ethical theories in particular situations. Recently, I’ve reframed the project more generally: using game design principles to create fun and effective learning experiences.

Two books on game design that I can recommend for teachers are Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun and James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Lerner argues that game design principles can be used to redesign political institutions and reinvigorate democracy, but his review of game design theory is useful for anyone interesting in implementing game design ideas in different contexts, and I use his taxonomy of game mechanics as a starting point. Continue reading

Bookending: Prebrief and Debrief

mission-briefingDebriefing allows students to process their experience of a simulation and evaluate that experience against concepts. The same technique is often called “reflection” if there is no simulation involved.

Explaining the purpose of an activity before students engage in it is also very beneficial, because it primes them to seek out and pay attention to information previously identified as important. A prebriefing (or preflection) creates a context that facilitates students’ mental and emotional engagement during the activity. The acronym “DIE” encapsulates what an instructor should include in a prebriefing: Continue reading

Specifications Grading, Attempt 1, Day 0

Hello, ALPS readers! I’m back after a long summer and spring sabbatical, and am eager to get back in the classroom and talk all things pedagogy here on ALPS. I’m starting a new series where I outline in excruciating detail my experiences using Specifications Grading.  I’ll be sharing my materials, talking about the ups and downs, and reflecting on this unique grading system throughout the semester.

We’ve given quite a bit of attention to specifications grading in the past few months. I did a presentation on it at the ALPS workshop at the University of Surrey in May as I started working on adapting one of my own courses to this new system. I also consulted several former students and children-of-friends about what they thought of the system in abstract, and the general consensus ranged from “shrug” to “that might be cool.” Experts in analysis, my young consultants.

In a nutshell, Specifications Grading is a system where all assignments are clearly linked to course learning outcomes, given clear specifications on what students need to do to earn a passing mark, and graded on a pass/fail style system, where a pass is a high bar (typically a B). Assignments are bundled together by learning outcome, and course grades are assigned based on the bundles that students complete. So, higher grades go to students that either complete more bundles (achieving more learning outcomes) or higher-level bundles that demand students complete more complex work. The course also employs flexibility mechanisms such as tokens to let students revise or reattempt a failing assignment, forgive a course absence, or gain some other kind of benefit. This system is supposed to ensure that all students who pass the class are achieving the minimum learning outcomes for the course, but also puts their grade into their hands by removing the mystery behind grades (no longer 170 out of 200 points, but ‘excellent’ ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory) and letting them choose which grade bundle to achieve.

Check out our previous posts for more general information on Specs Grading, or check out this great community of scholars working with the system.. For this new series, I am going to write throughout the semester about my experience in adapting and teaching my research methods course to this system.

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Active Learning: What is it good for?

I spent this week attending a Course Design Institute held by my university’s teaching and learning center. The workshop centered on creating a learner-centered syllabus and aligning course objectives, assessments and activities. I thought I’d share a few quick take-aways related to active learning.

First, the facilitator presented evidence from STEM fields on the value of active learning over lecture-based courses. In particular, I was struck by two studies.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (Freeman et al). is a meta-analysis that reviewed 225 studies comparing student performance in undergraduate STEM courses. This is the stand-out quote from that piece:

“If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial” (Freeman et al 2014: 8413, emphasis added).

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Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 1, Reducing the Workload

Many of our regular readers on ALPS already use simulations and games in their classes.  But plenty of folks find us because they are interested in learning about new-to-them pedagogies, and want some guidance in how to use them in their classes.  For these folks, we are starting a new series here on ALPS: The Beginner’s Guide to Simulations.  This recurring series will focus on helping new adopters (and those who might want some reminders and encouragement!) work through the challenges of using simulations and games in the college classroom.

Before their first time using a simulation in class, most instructors face one or more of the following concerns:

  1. Creating and running a simulation is a lot of work…
  2. ..for little payoff. Simulations are not a good substitute for the tried-and-true lecture for learning.
  3. The simulation will take up too much time in-class, forcing me to give up coverage of important content.
  4. The simulation might fail, either due to my own mistakes or lack of student interest, and will therefore be a waste of time.

These concerns are largely valid, but not necessarily deal breakers. With more than sixty simulations published just in The Journal of Political Science Education and PS: Political Science & Politics in the last ten years, clearly there are a number of scholars who have found designing simulations to be a worthwhile endeavor.  In the first few entries in this series, I’m going to unpack each of these four concerns and propose some ideas and solutions to move us from fearful to excited about using simulations.

Part One: Reducing the Workload of Using Simulations and Games

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Zero Sum Simulations

I’m growing disillusioned with international relations simulations that are, by design, zero-sum. As previously mentioned, it’s currently “simulation time” and I’m running two different simulations. In my upper-level Human Rights course, my students are participating in the Global Problems Summit, which is essentially a mini-Model UN. Although some countries may “win” and others may “lose” with respect to the content of any resolutions based, the nature of the simulation encourages diplomacy and attempts at cooperation and compromise.

In my two sections of Introduction to International Politics, my students are engaged in the International Relations in Action simulation. On the whole, I do like this simulation and think it captures my learning objectives better than Statecraft (which I’ve used the previous four years). The scenarios are interesting and have encouraged the students to think about a number of international situations and appreciate the complexity of international politics.

But, one thing the students have noticed is that many of the scenarios are zero-sum. Continue reading